3, 2, 1, jump! Quick, take a deep breath before you hit the water. Allow yourself to sink, let the cold catch up, before blasting to the surface and gasping for precious air. Swim to the ladder, climb back onto the jetty where the seagulls are eyeing you nervously. Shake the water from your hair, and do it again. 3, 2, 1, jump!
In my house, December means summertime is here, and summertime means jetty jumping. Otago Harbour is still freezing, but the shining sun helps us pretend it is warm. We pull on our wetsuits, grab a towel, and head to Back Beach (which does not in fact have any sand, as all good beaches should- instead, there are smooth stones for skipping and washed up bits of seaweed interspersed with beer bottles). The best place to jump is conveniently also covered in bird poo, but we don’t mind - the ocean will wash it all away shortly. We jump in, again and again and again. Sometimes we race to the ramp, our vision blurring as we slice through the water. Other times, the allure of the warm rocks in the distance wins us over, and we collapse among them after the dash from the jetty. The wake of the boats coming in after a day out causes a flurry of activity as everyone seeks the best spot to float in the incoming waves, though sometimes the black smoke from the more rundown ships instead causes a round of spluttering. All the while, the sun burns our faces and the water chills our bones, and we dive to the bottom to grab mud to throw at each other.
When we visit the beach, our grandparents wave to us from the golden sand, just as another wave knocks us over. But when we surface we are laughing, yelling to each other, “Did you see that one!” Golden streaks in our hair and freckles on our noses make us more resilient to the waves which knock us down- we are carefree. The soft sand back on the shore turns us all into lizards, trying to extract all the warmth we can. Someone sets up a barbecue, the vague burning smell hanging in the air, and we practise handstands and cartwheels. On a rare occasion the marine wildlife will pay us a visit as we swim - once, a sting ray which glided through the water, another time a sunfish which flapped at us, and of course the beautiful seals and sea lions who guard our city.
On days when the tide is low, we walk along the craggy shore, lifting rocks to find crabs, and keeping a sharp eye out for starfish and octopuses, careful not to disturb the dwindling numbers of herons, shags, and spoonbills who patrol the bays. The hidden rock pools hide many treasures, which we carefully search for and even more carefully leave undisturbed - after all, this is the sea creatures’ home and we are just visiting. As we walk, we pick up plastic bottles and wrappers which have been carelessly dumped into our sea.
December swimming brings the promise of summer holidays where we can swim every day. It tells us that school is over, and spells out the end of exams and homework and 7 o’clock wake ups every morning. For some, it means holidays abroad. For others, it means visiting family. For everyone, it means a time to relax a little, to enjoy the beautiful weather and the stunning rata and pohutukawa trees blooming Santa Claus red. December is the final note in the year’s song, and the last note always stretches a little longer. Even though we know that the weather won’t last, that we can’t swim forever, everyone in Dunedin takes the chance while it’s still here, because when the clouds roll back in and the harbour cools down again it will be too late. So, we keep on swimming, relishing the few warm months of the year where the crickets buzz, the clouds float out to sea, and pavlova is available at the supermarket.
But December swimming also reminds us how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place. A hundred, two hundred, five hundred years ago much of the world shared this same beauty, a clean, green environment, but now everywhere you look there is dirt and smog. The summer sun is bittersweet, because it shines down on both the sublime scenery and the rubbish that litters it. The ladders on the jetty are rusting, another reminder that the fragile stability we have now is only temporary. We need to do something soon, whether that be replacing the ladders or tackling our waste management. For now, the water is clear and reflects the sky and the hills, but it could very easily turn into a murky taniwha instead. It is just as likely these days to walk back home carrying an armload of plastic packaging as it is to find a shiny piece of sea glass or a bright paua shell.